When world No5 Marwan Elshorbagy defeated his older brother Mohamed for the first time on the professional squash tour in the quarter-finals of the Windy City Open seven weeks ago, he couldn’t look him in the eye.
Donning a shirt that has ‘Elshorbagy Jr’ printed across the back, Marwan tossed his racquet in a conflicted moment that spanned the entire emotional spectrum. He looked both angry and relieved. Proud yet also ashamed. He buried his face in his brother’s neck and wept uncontrollably.
Mohamed, who lost his world No1 spot a few weeks after suffering that defeat, kept talking into Marwan’s ear, but the younger Elshorbagy seemed inconsolable.
“When I play Mohamed, some people think it’s harder for him than it is for me because he’s the older brother and all the pressure is on him, but it’s actually the other way around,” Marwan told Sport360 ahead of his maiden appearance at the PSA Dubai World Series Finals in Dubai Opera in June.
“Mohamed goes into it expecting to defeat me, the people are expecting him to defeat me, so when he does, he’s not thinking I’m defeating my younger brother, it’s the norm, it’s what should happen.
“But for me, I think about it completely differently. He has helped me so much, he has advised me, he has done everything for me, and after all that, I go and beat him? He made me and then I beat him?
“Especially that match in Chicago, it had completely different implications because that loss took him from the world No1 to the world No3. When he was greeting me after the match, he joked and said ‘after all this time, you’re the one who actually cost me my No1 ranking?’
“He was joking. He was very happy for me but I was crying and I felt very sorry. I didn’t know what to say. The only time it hit me is when I threw my racquet and went to him and I realised I couldn’t look him in the eye. I couldn’t face him after beating him and because I never looked at his face, I only found out how proud of me he was when I saw the video of that moment later in my room. He was actually really happy and proud of me.
“He always said that ‘the day my brother beats me will be the proudest day of my life’ and he really means it. He wasn’t faking it.”
For so long Marwan lived in the shadow of his older sibling, who didn’t just spend 28 months at the top of the world rankings, but is also a two-time British Open champion and a force to be reckoned with in the sport, ever since he broke out as a teen squash prodigy.
The Egyptian entered that clash in Chicago carrying a 0-7 record against Mohamed. But on that day, the tables had turned.
Since then Marwan reached his first World Series final, climbed to a career-high ranking of No5, and defeated his brother one more time in El Gouna last week. Elshorbagy Jr. is rising while Sr. is moving in the opposite direction – down to No3 in the world and suffering unexpected losses.
The pair live together in Bristol, share the same team, and have an unbelievably close relationship. Going through contrasting periods in their career at the same time must produce feelings that are hard to digest.
Marwan takes us back to that day in Chicago and adds: “When we went back to the room after the match Mohamed hugged me and told me ‘I’m really happy for you’. He’s telling me that and it is actually the toughest period of his life. Can you imagine how special that is? It’s not easy at all for him.
“He’s been having a down season, he’s still No3 but it’s not what people expected from him and not what he expected for himself. Yet he can still find it in himself to be happy for me. He is able to keep our relationship above our sport, no matter how hard it is. He is happier for me than he is upset for himself.
“It’s very difficult and nobody can understand it except me and him. On each one of us it’s difficult in a different way. But it’s great that we showed the world how important a brotherly relationship really is, that this is how it should be.”
No matter how closely you watch sibling champions like Venus and Serena Williams, or Mohamed and Marwan Elshorbagy, it is impossible for one to comprehend how they feel when they square off in a competition.
Marwan describes it as an “awkward situation” for everyone involved, especially their mother, who is a key figure in their careers, and can often be seen giving them instructions court-side during their matches. But never when they’re facing each other.
“We made a deal since we were kids, that if we ever played each other, we’d never have anyone in our corners. We wouldn’t have coaches, we wouldn’t get advice from anyone,” said the Alexandrian.
“My mother doesn’t come to our matches if we are playing each other. She doesn’t speak to either one of us the day of the match. I think it’s tougher for her than for me.
“She doesn’t know what to say after the match. She can’t say congratulations to the winner and at the same time she can’t console the loser. She can’t advise us on what we did right or wrong in the match, because that can affect our next match against one another. So it’s hard for her. It’s very awkward the whole situation, for all of us.”
Add to that the fact that Marwan and Mohamed share the same room during tournaments and the dynamic on match days in which they face off gets even more complicated.
But Marwan is used to complicated. He grew up looking up to Mohamed, who is three years his senior, but also with the weight of expectation on his shoulders, constantly fielding comparisons to his prolific brother. Such comparisons are no longer holding him back though and he says a change in his own mentality is why he is now a top-five player.
“I want to do more, I want to achieve more. You want to prove people wrong more. That’s always been a motivation for me, trying to achieve a lot in a short period – trying to prove people wrong. I feel like I’m a bit underrated as a player,” he admits.
“It comes down to my brother. What I’m going through, nobody will ever understand it. People have always compared me to my brother. Mohamed as a junior and as an up-and-coming player, he’s always been very successful. He made the top-10 when he was 20 or 19. He reached the quarter-finals of the World Championship when he was 17. So he achieved so much when he was young and that is something very special and very unique. Maybe only him and Ramy Ashour have done so much that young.
“So people comparing me to something like that all my life… it took me a while to realise that I have to be myself and that as a player I’m doing very well for my age.
“So I started to relax more when I got older. I turned it from a negative to a positive.”
Beyond the influence of his brother, Marwan credits his parents for everything he and Mohamed have managed to achieve. It must take an incredibly special family to produce one world-class champion, let alone two, and the Shorbagys have shown they are certainly no ordinary clan.
“My parents are very special,” says Marwan. “They made sure I had the same life as my brother, so that I would never go to them one day and say ‘you gave my brother more than you did me’.
“My mother travelled with us to Bristol and was living away from my father to make sure we didn’t suffer from a culture shock when we first went abroad. They sacrificed so much for us.
“My mother always wanted more from us and that was always the key. Even when we’d win a title, she’d be happy but she’d immediately tell us to work on something to do better.”
That constant strive to improve has now taken Marwan to his first showing at the elite season finale in the UAE in June, where the top-eight of the circuit will compete on a glass court at the Dubai Opera.
It’s the first time Marwan has qualified for the event and he commemorated the feat by taking part in a stunning photoshoot across five of the emirate’s most beautiful locations.
“When I got the call (about the shoot) I didn’t think about it twice,” said the 23-year-old.
“Mohamed did it last year and told me how amazing it was. I had never been to Dubai before so I was quite keen. It was amazing because the way they created the video, the story of it was incredible. It was like a sight-seeing trip for me, I visited five different places on my first day in the city. It was a different kind of experience for me, acting in front of the camera. I can’t wait to come back in June.”
*You can watch Marwan and the world’s top squash female and male players in Dubai from June 6-10 by purchasing tickets from www.dubaiopera.com or from the Dubai Opera Box Office.
Mackenzie Dern insists she’s not feeling the pressure on the prospect of defending her 55kg black brown belt category title at the Abu Dhabi World Pro Jiu-Jitsu Championship on Friday.
The 24-year-old black belt enters the tournament as the woman to beat and on the quest for a hat-trick after claiming gold in the capital for the last two editions.
She opens against Belgium’s Amal Amjahid in the first round and the American is relishing the opportunity of returning to the venue where she picked up three golds in the last two years.
“I don’t feel the pressure at all,” she said. “For me it’s fun. Everyone is excited and am happy to be here in Abu Dhabi and I will just go out there and do my best.
“The opening bout is always tough you see. Amal is brown belt and she has nothing to lose and such contests like this are tricky. She will be giving it everything and you have to be wary about that.”
— Denzil M Pinto (@denz_360) April 19, 2017
One of the new rule changes means no category can consists of more than two competitors from the same nation.
Dern, who made headlines in 2015 for handing Gabrielle Garcia a first defeat in five years en route to Open weight gold, believes that will work in her favour.
“The Brazilians will have to go through the pre-trials and they will fight each other to get through. It will be okay for me though but it will be tougher for them I feel,” said the 5’3 inch star.
Besides jiu-jitsu, Dern has also been testing herself in the MMA with three victories out of three since her debut last July.
Considered a future star of UFC, she hinted bouts inside the cage could be a more regular thing from next year.
“The sport is getting harder by every passing year with lots of girls coming in,” she said. “This could well be my last full season and might only choose to compete in few Jiu Jitsu tournaments like the Abu Dhabi World Pro.”
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Martino Da Silva’s decision to travel to Abu Dhabi out of his own pocket paid off as the South African claimed gold in the Masters Purple 1 belt -77kg.
“I have been competing at the National trials since 2011 and I have never won the ticket (to come to Abu Dhabi), said the 32-year-old. “This year I thought I would pay myself to enter and travel here because there were a lot of entries taking part in the trials as it was a very tough competition.
“I’m just happy to have won and today was just my day.”
Jakub Zajkowski of Poland won Purple 85kg, while Sophie Cox of Britain claimed blue 62kg gold.
Training alone at Hamdan Sports Complex, it’s easy to spot UAE-born Serbian star Velimir Stjepanovic swim length after length.
“Just five more to go,” the 23-year-old tells me as I wait poolside to talk to him.
You wouldn’t guess by watching his rhythmic action in full flight, but for Stjepanovic, actually getting back into the pool and doing what he does best hasn’t been as easy as it looks in recent times.
Last August, the Dubai resident headed to the Rio Olympics with great expectation of winning a medal, but by his own admission, it was a big, big disappointment to come home from Brazil empty-handed.
Indeed, so much so, upon his return, he stepped away from the pool for more than three months and didn’t submerge into the water once.
For a man who had barely taken a two-week break from swimming since his childhood, this was new territory. Uncharted waters, if you like.
“There’s no tiptoeing around it, Rio didn’t go as well as I’d hoped and it did take a pretty big toll on me,” Stjepanovic, who failed to make it through to the finals of his signature 200m freestyle race, said.
“It was a huge step for me to take three months or so off and it was really, really vital.”
After also missing out on a place in the 400m freestyle final, the swimmer hasn’t been afraid to analyse what went wrong and why he didn’t reach the heights he expected of himself.
“For the Olympics, I put a lot of pressure on myself. It was a high-pressure situation everywhere where I went, but I didn’t help myself by piling more of it on.
“Usually, I don’t really feel it on the outside, when I am away from the pool, but a lot was expected of me in Serbia and in Dubai too.
“To be honest, that didn’t really affect me too much but it was the pressure that I put on myself to try and compete well… it probably tipped me over the edge.
“I wasn’t really enjoying swimming as much building up to Rio.”
Before the Games, Stjepanovic joined fellow Serbian athletes in a training camp.
“I don’t think that really went well,” the two-time Olympian stated. “It’s never really suited me to do training camps so I kind of regret doing it as well. It’s such an intense environment and you go outside of your comfort zone. We were away or a month and that creates even more pressure and anxiety for both swimmers and coaches.
“The tapering didn’t go as well as it could have done either – a bunch of small things that could have been done better.
“Fortunately, I didn’t go through the lows of Brazil alone, I had loads of people around me that wanted to support and help what I was doing. Hindsight is a great thing, 20-20, but you can’t really go back and change it. Now, it’s about looking forward and not dwelling on the past too much.”
True to his word, Stjepanovic has done just that – and he may agree – that other events in his life put competition swimming into perspective.
Earlier this year, in January, he married the ‘love of his life’ Jessica Olie and the couple live in Dubai.
His new wife was a national level swimmer in the UK as a youngster and is now a qualified yoga teacher – creating a series of e-books on the practice and amassing an Instagram following of over 360,000 followers.
2017 started off in the best way possible. I got married to the love of my life and best friend @jessicaolie on the 14th January. This is my absolute favourite picture of the day, but it still doesn't do the day justice as we celebrated with close family and friends, it was better than I could have ever pictured it. Thank you for standing by my side and being awesome and saying "I do". I love you, Jessica Olie.
He added: “I’ve always wanted a family and kind of always been a bit more mature than my age might show. I mean I’m 23 and I’m married, but way back when, people got married younger. My parents got married when they were 20 – so it’s not all that different.
“Jess is the love of my life for sure. I’m just happy to be experiencing all the stuff that I’m doing with her. This journey that I’m on and the journey she’s on, we are doing it and experiencing that together. That’s the most important thing.”
This year, Stjepanovic also parted company with long-term coach Chris Tidey, of 12 years, and hired Sebastijan Higl – a Serbian swimming guru.
He freely admits it was a difficult decision to take but nevertheless one that just felt right to make.
“I want to put on record my thanks to Chris. It was one crazy ride, a lot of ups and downs but at the end of the day, I became double European champion (Berlin 2014) under his watch. I’m really thankful for Hamilton Aquatics in Dubai for giving me the opportunity to train in the swimming academy there for so many years.
“I think me and Sebastijan are really on the same page with what we want to achieve and his mindset is very similar to mine,” the former Jumeirah College pupil, who will be joined by his fellow countryman and coach in Dubai for a training block next week, said.
“We’re both quite laidback in a sense. He’s sort of just my coach and nothing else. He doesn’t really mind what I do outside of the pool – which is important – because I don’t want to feel pressured in anything outside of swimming.”
Recently, Stjepanovic has also been working with a sports psychologist and he says: “When I tell people about it, they assume something is wrong and really it’s not, I just want the opportunity to be the best swimmer I can be.”
For now, he is working hard in the pool again and will head to Serbia next month for another intensive block of physical conditioning.
The next big focus is the 17th FINA World Championships, which will be held in Budapest and Balatonfüred from July 14.